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College Facilities As Living Laboratories for Sustainability

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College campuses across the country have been expanding their focus on sustainable practices with facilities, operations, and curriculum. These efforts have been bolstered by the efforts of several high-profile national associations such as the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) and Sustainability, Education and Economic Development (SEED).

One of the most prominent elements of this trend is that sustainable facilities not only reduce operating costs, but also serve as learning spaces for students ... a concept referred to as living laboratories. Sustainable practices can be incorporated into a wide range of programs, from technician training to managing sustainable systems.

In Wisconsin, Western Technical College is extending the concept of facilities as living laboratories with two new initiatives: Passive House Construction and Applied Hydro Technology.

Passive House Construction
Western Technical College has existing associate degree and diploma programs in Building Systems Technology, Wood Technics, Architecture Technician, Landscape and Horticulture Technology and Heating/Ventilation/Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Technician. These programs provide a stream of graduates with excellent job placement rates in their respective areas. Though there has been some coordination in curriculum and projects, these programs for the most part are stand alone. That is changing with the faculty-led initiative to develop Passive Houses.

Passive House technology has an established presence in Europe and emerging presence in the United States. Passive houses use ultra insulation and air circulation techniques to reduce energy consumption by at least 80 percent. By adding alternative energy elements such as solar panels, a passive house can exceed 90 percent reduced energy consumption.

In order to provide instruction in passive house technology, the five programs involved in the initiative must integrate their curriculum. And, the ability to construct real homes would be ideal.

The college entered into a community partnership with Hillview Urban Agriculture Center (HUAC) ... an organization that promotes locally grown food and healthy eating. HUAC was located in a century old greenhouse located in a residential neighborhood in La Crosse, Wis. The building inefficiency placed a real burden on the operational viability of the organization. Western Technical College partnered with HUAC to relocate the greenhouse to the college campus. In turn, HUAC donated the land (three city lots) from the old greenhouse site to be developed into passive houses. Once the homes are constructed, they will be sold to private owners.

By developing these houses, the five programs will be adding a new dimension ... an integrated curriculum in passive house technology. Over the years, the college built more than two dozen traditional homes as part of a neighborhood revitalization program for the City of La Crosse. Now the college looks forward to building energy-efficient, passive-rated homes.

Hydro Technology and the Angelo Dam
Prior to 2013, Western Technical College did not offer a hydro technology program. But as a signatory to the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, the college was seeking opportunities for alternative energy sources. One presented itself when Monroe County decided to sell a dam on the La Crosse River, approximately one-third mile from Western's public safety facility. The County no longer wished to maintain the dam and in 2011, offered to sell it to the college for $1. An engineering analysis determined that the structure was in excellent shape and could easily accommodate new hydro technology equipment. In September 2013, the college received Federal Energy Regulation Commission (FERC) approval and the hydro equipment is currently being installed. The dam will be powered and generating electricity in December 2013.

The newly powered dam will allow the college to offer a five-course certificate in hydro technology in 2014 ... a certificate that is unique in the upper Midwest. The college will also offer a technical seminar on How to Power a Dam. And, since there are more than 600 non-energy producing dams in the state of Wisconsin, there is great potential for influencing increased use of hydro technology as a viable alternative energy source in the upper Midwest.

Back to the Concept of Living Laboratories
So, these are interesting program initiatives in sustainability, but how do they serve as unique examples for living laboratories? First of all, both initiatives literally pay for themselves. The passive houses will be sold one at a time, with the proceeds of the sale being used to build the next house. The Angelo Dam will generate 1.2 million kwh per year with the energy sold to a regional utility. The annual revenue will cover the annual borrowing payments for the hydro equipment. Ultimately, once the equipment is paid for, the energy generated will be equivalent to removing the college's six satellite locations from the grid. Even a LEED Platinum building has to assume the cost of construction as part of the overall cost.

Western is pleased to see these two new initiatives launched. But beyond their program impact, we also realize that a new door is being opened. On the other side, lies community-based facilities as living laboratories and new educational opportunities for colleges and universities.